Fremont Square has undergone an incredible transformation in the span of just a few months. Today, the park just north of downtown Stockton functions like most other parks, playing host to school children on recess and downtown workers enjoying lunch. Nothing remarkable happens there, which is in itself remarkable considering the park’s condition just last year. Fremont Square had a reputation as a hot spot for gang activity, scaring off any would-be park patrons and sending the occasional stray bullet into the surrounding neighborhood.
“It got so bad, we had to put bullet proof glass in to protect our workers,” said Thomas Shaffer, Executive VP at Bank of Stockton, which borders the Fremont Square.
So how did this notorious drug park go from feuding gang turf war to school yard play area in a matter of months? While the solution turned out to be rather simple—tear out the benches and tables—the process required a careful collaboration between the city, the community, and the private sector. In a cash-strapped city like Stockton, this type of inclusive, cooperative approach serves as a model for getting things done.
Shaffer was not exaggerating about the bulletproof glass. The bank had been struck by gun fire approximately 35 to 40 times in the last three years—even during the day. Workers even keep the bullets found around the building in a drawer. Things got so bad that some employees would not even traverse the park to reach the staff parking lot north of Fremont Square.
“People had to walk in teams to get to that parking lot,” said Bank of Stockton President and CEO Doug Eberhardt, who once witnessed a shooting while in the bank’s parking lot. “We couldn’t even use our own lot. We had to lease meter spaces from the city.”
But instead of moving to a safer part of town, Eberhardt decided to reach out to the city to see what could be done. Eberhardt gave Police Chief Eric Jones a personal tour of the park to show him firsthand how badly the park had deteriorated. Jones agreed that the crime-ridden city block needed to be addressed.
In December, the city convened a meeting of community stakeholders including the Downtown Stockton Alliance, the police department, the Bank of Stockton and other surrounding businesses and groups, such as God’s Throne Baptist Church. Together, the group combed through several ideas– including fencing off the park— and eventually settled on a plan to remove the park’s benches, improve lighting and trim trees for better visibility. The Bank of Stockton offered to foot the bill.
“It’s not typical that one group would pay for a whole project,” said Victor Machado, the city’s Parks Manager who participated in the community meeting. “But we all wanted to see the park cleaned up, and the Bank of Stockton has always been a responsible neighbor, always stepping forward.”
Machado drew up plans to get the job done and the work was completed in just a handful of days. The result was immediate and dramatic. The changes were made in February, and the by all accounts, crime has seemingly vanished from Fremont Square.
“It’s incredible,” Shaffer says of the park’s transformation. “People feel much safer. We have employees who use the park for lunch. Kids from the elementary school down the street use the park now. There is no crime.”
With gang members no longer roaming the area, Fremont Square has been returned to peaceful citizens. As Shaffer noted, students from the nearby downtown charter schools now frequent the park, and just last week, several food trucks set up shop along the park’s perimeter to feed hungry office workers.
While the park has improved, by no means has the crime that once infested Fremont Square disappeared, it’s just been pushed somewhere else. Machado notes that knocking out park benches only works as a short-term strategy.
“It’s important that people realize that wiping out a whole park is not a solution to crime,” said Machado. “This is just the first phase, to get the illicit activity out. The goal is to get people back to using the park as it was intended so that we can reintroduce those park features.”
Once a critical mass of peaceful park goers returns on a regular basis, criminals will be less inclined to return. To that end, Machado envisions bringing back features such a benches and BBQ areas while adding a playground for children. Of course, these improvements cost money which is in short supply at city hall, though the Bank of Stockton has indicated that they are committed to the park’s wellbeing.
“Anything that helps the park, we are certainly open to that,” said Shaffer, noting that the Bank of Stockton hopes to help the city with the next round of improvements, including getting the park’s grass back to respectable condition.
In the grand scheme of things, Fremont Square is just one city block. But the park’s transformation represents the importance of collaboration and community engagement at a time of limited resources. Where other companies might have given up on the area and moved away, the Bank of Stockton stepped up, helping the the community at large in the process. Employees and customers can now come to the bank without fear of being hit by a stray bullet, and the neighborhood can now enjoy the park as it was originally intended. It’s a win-win.
“It’s incumbent upon any business owner in downtown to do what they can to help the area,” said Shaffer. “It’s part of being a good citizen.”